By Oritsegbemi O. Omatete
Ugborodo and the arrival of the Europeans
I write from what I know and have experienced, not from mere sentiment, because I was born in Ugborodo eight decades ago. I have watched, helplessly, my village being swept into the sea. I envy my colleagues who speak joyfully about their homes in their villages because the house where I was born is now about half a kilometer into the Atlantic Ocean. But this article is neither about the loss of my birth-house nor the gradual disappearance of my birth-village by erosion, it is about something more sinister and more ominous, it is about the loss of the name of my village, “Ugborodo.”
Ugborodo enclave existed before the Europeans arrived. There are several villages: Ugborodo, Ogidigben, Madangho, Ajudaibo and others, that exist around this estuary of the tributary of the Niger as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The area is called Ugborodo, after the largest and oldest village. The Portuguese, the first Europeans to visit the area in the 16th and 17th centuries, named the estuary and the river discharging into it, Escravos, which means “Slaves” in Portuguese, because it is alleged that they obtained two slaves in the area. The Portuguese also named the Forcados River, which probably comes from the Portuguese “biforkado” which describes a fork in the river. As other Europeans came, the Germans, the French and, finally, our colonial masters, the British, they continued to use the names, Escravos and Forcados, respectively, for the rivers. However, invidiously and surreptitiously, Ugborodo is now being called Escravos – Slaves! THIS MUST STOP.
I have raised the alarm before in an article I wrote about two decades ago, titled “CRY MY BELOVED UGBORODO.” Let me recall parts of that article.
“The title is not new nor is the sentiment. But the humiliation is excruciating and continuous. Ugborodo and its communities are being reduced to Escravos, the SLAVES.
Brief history of Ugborodo
But Ugborodo has a rich history. It was alleged to have been founded by Ijebu fishermen who came down the Niger River. Two brothers and their five sons fanned out to form the various communities of Ugborodo. Hence, we refer to ourselves as “Ikpere ale meje – Ikpere (Ugborodo) of seven sections”. Ugborodo was a thriving community with its own ruler, Olaja-ori, before the famed movement of the Iwere (Itsekiri) royal family from the Benin royal family over 500 years ago; but Ugborodo has now accepted the hegemony of the Olu of Warri. The Portuguese had a settlement both at Warri and in the island of Ugborodo around 1588. In late 19th century, the French built a salt factory in Ugborodo. When the British arrived and learnt about this, they threw a party for all the people and during that party the factory was mysteriously blown up and so was the French presence in what became Nigeria.
Ugborodo literally means “Dry land in the Sea” and it was a huge island. I recall my grandmother describing how dangerous it was to move from the village to the beach after dark because large cats (probably leopards) and dangerous animals prowled at night. If they had to, they moved in a large group. I remember the Ugborodo I grew up in 1940’s, with a large silk cotton tree (Egungun) in its center, towering over all other trees and its huge buttress roots serving as gathering place for village elders especially during the secret masquerading season. We had to walk a long distance to get to the beach where canoes were loaded with conical nets used to catch crayfish. The village had mango trees that, to the joy of the youth, fruited abundantly annually. Edible fruits were everywhere in the bushes and palm fruits were harvested from there to prepare our delicious fresh crayfish “banga” soups. These are all gone now along with my childhood house and neighborhood, which are about half a kilometer in the Atlantic Ocean.
Ugborodo – Entrance to Delta Ports and the Oil Exploration
The estuary by Ugborodo was (and is) the entrance to the Delta ports. Ships had to change pilots here before they crossed the bar. The Nigerian pilots were ferried from Ogidigben to the ships anchored at sea. These skillful pilots took the ships across the bar. Even then one or two ran aground especially if they tried to maneuver in the deep fog.
Thus, in the 1950’s and 60’s, the lighthouse and the breakwater were built on the Ogidigben side of the estuary to facilitate navigation. That was the beginning of the end of Ugborodo island. The breakwater turned the fury of the sea into the erosion of Ugborodo, which continues to date unabated. Ugborodo is less than a quarter of the land I remember.
The 1950’s brought another set of people, seismic exploration teams of the Shell-BP Company. I recalled in 1954, my second year in secondary school, Government College Ughelli, a Shell-BP helicopter landed on Ugborodo beach before my awe-struck people. I tried to approach the helicopter but was stopped for safety reasons. These explorers set off explosives; houses in the village shook and vibrated. It was the beginning of the pollution, initially just noise pollution (later excessive oil and environmental pollution). The people did not know what was going on. In their superstition, they believed these foreigners were after huge reptiles that were said to protect diamonds and other precious metals. Little did they realize how correct they were. It was, indeed, something precious they found, it was liquid and black, “OIL”. The whole area sits on oil and gas whether on land or on sea. Billions of barrels of oil have been exported yielding trillions of naira to the Nigerian coffer.”
Let me continue with the brief history. Once Shell-BP found oil in the Nigerian delta, the oil rush began. Italian, French and American oil companies all followed. By early 1960’s when I was attending university abroad, the American company, Gulf (now Chevron), had found large deposits of oil off the shores of Ugborodo. In 1964, they leased land from us, the Ugborodo people, to build their oil terminal and airstrip. My people had to evacuate their land, including my grand uncle Pa Egbetse Ereku, whom we fondly called Baba Arunton because his property was at Arunton. Arunton, which means the mouth of the creek, became the beachhead of the Gulf property on Ugborodo land.
Shockingly, the Oil Company called this property on Ugborodo land, Escravos Terminal and Airstrip instead of Ugborodo Terminal and Airstrip. That was the beginning of the Ugborodo being called Escravos, “Slaves.” Over the past half a century, Chevron has leased more land and expanded. Ugborodo not only sits on oil, it also sits on gas. Two gas extraction plants have been built and they are called Escravos Gas to Liquid (EGTL) phases 1 and 2, respectively. Concomitant with these expansions, Chevron built a modern headquarters, similar to that at their head office in San Ramon, California, with offices and senior staff living quarters in Lekki, the most luxurious section of Lagos metropolis. Strangely, the oil company, in these over 50 years, did not develop any property in Ugborodo area where its operations are located. Most amazing, its policies encouraged its workers from the Ugborodo area to move to larger towns like Warri and Sapele. Consequently, their employees are ferried in by air or sea to their fenced-off property, where they work for a fortnight or a month and are then ferried back home. Thus, there is no contact with the host community, which now derives minimal economic benefit from the presence of these humongous operations.
Chevron Oil Company has shown an iconic picture of a fisherman sailing in his canoe peacefully on the Ugborodo estuary. Yes, we lived happily and peacefully in our fishing community before oil was discovered in our land; just like the people of Dubai were sailing their dhows all day diving for a few pearls until oil was discovered in their land. But there is a big difference. Dubai became a tourist Mecca; Ugborodo, the island in the sea, became a neglected blight. But that is not the point of this article. Posterity will decide what went wrong with us, the Black people of Nigeria.
Ugborodo is not Escravos, Slaves! Restore our name now!
Our problem here is immediate and much larger. It is an existential problem. Our name Ugborodo is being replaced by Escravos – “Slaves.” I am always shocked whenever I hear Chevron employees who were either born in Ugborodo or whose parents were born there, shamelessly, or is it ignorantly, say with pride that they work in Escravos instead of Ugborodo. Even the almighty Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) uses Escravos in all its reports on the activities in the Ugborodo axis. Now that we all know that Escravos means Slaves, what should we do?
First, sons and daughters of Ugborodo must stop using the word Escravos and replace it with Ugborodo in all communications in which they encounter that derogatory word.
Additionally, they should correct anybody who uses the word, whether he or she is their superior, equal or subordinate.
Second, Nigerians in the oil sector, especially NNPC and similar organizations, must avoid the use of Escravos and replace it with Ugborodo.
Third, and this is the most important, Chevron should immediately restore the name of the land leased from us to Ugborodo, not Escravos by renaming its operations appropriately: Ugborodo Airstrip, Ugborodo Terminal.
Ugborodo Gas to Liquid Phases I & II
Given all the destruction and non-development of our land, this is the least Chevron can do as its immediate corporate obligation to our people. Otherwise, Chevron dooms us to extinction when our name, Ugborodo, disappears from human existence and is replaced by Escravos, “Slaves.”
Fellow Nigerians and citizens of the world, you will recall that the Nigerian coast was disdainfully called the “Slave Coast.” We no longer use the term for our Coast. You will also recall that it was the Portuguese, realizing that we, the Africans, were hard workers that took our people from their colonies in Africa to labour in their plantations in South America. That started the dehumanizing transatlantic Slave Trade in which over twelve million of our strongest and healthiest people were shipped, chained together as cargo to the Americas, many of whom died in transit and were thrown into the seas. We became commodities traded and sold and deprived of humanity and looked down upon, even now. I hope the Portuguese regret the part they played in this ignominious history of our continent. Why then should Nigeria, the largest Black nation, have one of its rivers named by the demeaning Portuguese word Escravos – Slaves? This should be an outrage to all of us.Therefore, I appeal to fellow Nigerians, to all peoples of African descent wherever they are, and to all progressive peoples of the world to plead with the giant oil company, Chevron, to stop humiliating and degrading my people and immediately name all their operations in our land correctly, Ugborodo instead of Escravos – “Slaves.”
Nigerians in governments, local, state and federal, must pressure Chevron to change the name immediately. This is not too much to ask for, considering all the humiliations we have endured over these decades, even centuries.
Prof. Omatete, a member or fellow of several Nigerian and international professional associations, is passionate about his home and is pleading with Nigerians and the world to stop calling his home, Ugborodo, Escravos “Slaves.”
This article was first published on Guardian in 2019.